A Peek Inside My Suitcase


I’m ready to go (and yes, I packed two weeks early for this photo!)

Last May, I arrived in Paris with one suitcase large enough to transport Jimmy Hoffa’s body, a smaller and more practical backpack for everything which didn’t fit in the suitcase, and an even smaller–but highly impractical–computer backpack. (Impractical only because I had two backpacks, one back.)

I thwacked bystanders, blocked the turnstile trying to get out of Gare du Nord, and right there committed to downsizing. By the end of the summer, I realized that I hadn’t used half of what I brought and couldn’t fit most of it in the closet. Besides, we had a tiny washer and no dryer (which is the norm outside the US).

We implemented a rule across our clothing: Wear it until it smells or is stained. (As I write this, a pair of pants and top are hanging out in the Irish sunshine. The wash cycle took two hours.)

This simplifies our clothing strategy and cost. We carry as little as possible, replace pieces as they wear out, and rarely add without an offsetting subtract.

The result, travel days—which will never be my favorite–are less of a hassle. One day in Guatemala, I shopped online, replacing those things which had worn out—same brand, same color, and all waiting for me when I arrived in Charlottesville.

I’m not a clothes shopper; I love this.

Our trips tend to be three months long. Now I travel with a carry-on sized suitcase and a computer backpack. I glide through airports (seriously, you should see me), and we use my suitcase when we take weekend trips across Europe. Pat and I share it; it’s perfect.

As for the specifics, it may help to list some of the things I don’t carry: accessories, shampoo, makeup, hairdryer, creams and lotions, razors, spices and other cooking supplies, First aid kit, flashlight, duct tape, pocketknife, umbrella.

A few things you should know about me:

  • I don’t accessorize.
  • I am an optimist.
  • Frequently, someone says, “Can I help you, sir?”
  • I don’t let this bother me.

I do carry vitamins (which are surprisingly hard to decipher in Europe), a travel-sized toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss, ibuprofen, a backup pair of glasses, a tiny sewing kit, a nail file, and a pair of tweezers– without which I would bear an uncanny resemblance to ZZ Top.

Normally, I don’t pack a scale, but I bought one in Budapest that I loved so much, I brought it to Ireland. I’ll leave it here.

We buy shampoo, toothpaste, etc. when we arrive and have never lived anywhere that this was an issue. For me, it’s a small price to pay to avoid the weight and bulk of lugging it.

As for electronics, I always have my phone, a Kindle, and the smallest model of MacBook Air. I pick the adapters based on the trip. This time, I grabbed Ireland and the native plugs for Hungary (also used in France). Pat and I share a Kindle charger.

I don’t carry a camera because, well, I bring Pat.

Pat carries a very small wireless speaker and an iPod. We listen to music every day which provides us a measure of joy. That’s important. Figure out what brings you joy and pack that first. (But please, don’t try to convince me that extra pair of pants brings you joy—and yes, Pat. I’m talking to you.)

Over the last 18 months, we have deliberately chased mild weather hence no winter coat, bulky sweaters, gloves, or boots.

So what clothes do I pack?

  • One pair of pants (white on this trip)
  • Four shirts from tank top to short sleeve to long sleeve
  • One skirt
  • Two dresses (Nomadic Traders brand—folds tiny)
  • Black OluKai flip flops (I can easily walk 10 miles in these.)
  • Dress sandals
  • Lycra running pants and top (used across yoga, running, weight lifting)
  • Underwear, workout socks, one t-shirt (for sleeping or lounging)
  • A pullover smart wool, waterproof pants, hiking socks (all for the Wicklow Way)

We bought waterproof hiking boots in Dublin. I haven’t solved how I’ll get these home.

The day I travel, I wear my heavier pair of pants, a sweater, a long sleeve top, a coat (for this trip, a lightweight rain jacket), and my running shoes—all black.

I prefer skirts and dresses in hot weather and to dress up or down as needed. They have replaced shorts which, let’s be honest, is almost always a good swap for a 58-year-old woman. This fall, I will trade the dresses for a pair of pants and the sandals for a pair of flats. (In our son’s basement in Philadelphia is a box of off-season clothes I leave behind.)

Still, I have items with me that I have not worn on this trip. Each time we return to the United States, we adjust. The adjustments are fewer.

What do I miss?

  • Throw blankets (which are never found in rental apartments)
  • A fluffy bathrobe (When we get to Bratislava this fall, I’ll buy one at Tesco.)
  • Thick fuzzy lounging clothes: sweat pants, sweat shirt, slippers

In the past, I carried more kitchen things, but spices are cheap in Europe. I enjoy experimenting with the local selections in local recipes. I make do with the tools and pots in the kitchen. The most common issue for me is that rental apartment knives are always dull. Next month, I’ll pick up a small sharpening stone.

But truthfully, I don’t miss much—which is equal parts thought-provoking and alarming.

When we fly from Philly to Berlin in early September, there will be a lightweight throw blanket in my suitcase. It’s a joy for me to wrap up on a cool day in a comfortable chair with a good book, so I’ll buy one–and I’ll pack it first. As for the book, I’ll buy that when I get there.


Categories: How To

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19 replies

  1. I understand your entire list except for the WHITE pants!!

  2. White pants? Why not navy?

    • LOL Pam… would make sense, right? Honestly, I have four black or black/white shirts, a black pair of pants, a black dress (and an orange one!) and a black skirt… I needed something for when I walk after dark (otherwise, I’d have to pack reflective tape). Somehow, white made sense!! (and I generally get 3 or 4 days before I have to wash them… Other than the day the dog jumped on me on the trail.)

  3. Share your frustration with dull knives. I swear by an AccuSharp brand sharpener which I have been using for years. Easy, easier than a stone, and works very well.

  4. Always nice to discover a new brand of clothing. Thanks for the tip of Nomadic Traders!

    • No worries. I stumbled upon it in a store in Northern Michigan. I took one of their dresses to Guatemala, wore it every single day, and wore it out. I bought a new one that I am trying to manage a bit better! But I could tuck this dress into my pants pocket. Check out the Sierra Traders website. They had several things from them on a great sale. I generally fight the urge to buy “travel” clothes. But this is of a more normal fabric.

  5. Great post on packing for extended travel. We went through a similar evolution, in the past, my wife, Diane would need a whole lot of room for shoes! This still presents a challenge, tho’ for her, flip flops are a always comfortable. We have now got packing down to to a small roll-along, fits overhead airline storage if used, (we always check our bags), the ones we currently use are the Rick Steves model. We also have a small roll along the “stacks” with the suitcase and is our carry-on. We also find that we can buy sundries in other countries, tho’ Japan was a bit more of a challenge to get the correct words! We used a charity shop last year in the UK when Diane needed a warm overcoat, very cheap and we donated it back when we headed home. I have a fantasy that involves no real luggage and to get clothes as needed from charity shops, imagine the freedom. By the way, my carry-on is full of camera gear and electronics, we all have our priorities!

    • Thanks for the comment! I shopped at a thrift store in Budapest and paid five dollars for a wool coat. I left it in the park where the homeless sleep when we left. Shoes are my challenge…

      If you ever get to your dream, I want to hear about it!!

      Notice I did not show Pat’s bag. His suitcase is marginally bigger than mine. But his carryon is as big as my suitcase–all camera equipment. Someday, once he figures this out, I’ll let him guest post.

  6. One my first ever trip to Europe in 1994, we bought suitcases the size of row boats! Of course we regretted it. Last year (several trips later), I swore I would never pack too much again, but of course we ended up posting eight kilos of clothing and books home. I love that you left the coat for the homeless.

  7. I’ve always used a large (large is relative) backpacking backpack when I travel. Along with that I also carry a day pack (even though, only 1 back). Can you comment on why you choose a suitcase instead of a backpack? I’ve found it to be just as packable, with enough space, better organization, and much better during the travel times.

    • Sure… I carry a very small computer backpack (on my back) that has little more than my computer in it. I have a nylon day pack that folds to nothing in my suitcase. I wear this everyday as I almost always stop at the store, etc. while I am out. I typically don’t carry a purse. I have a terrible back and limit what I lift or wear. I pull a small (RyanAir carry on sized!) Mountain Smith roller. That works for me.

  8. Hi Julie,
    If I’m ever feeling down, I just fire up your blog and read a random post 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your life with us!

    I know your health is important to you, so wanted to share this tiny travel scale that might be of interest.

    NewlineNY Mini Bathroom Scale

    I met someone who had one (which I used) and it was great! Super tiny as well + (almost too) accurate!

    Looking forward to your next post! Keep em’ commin’!

    All the best,
    – D.


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